BY MEGAN TAYLOR MORRISON
The icy ocean between Sweden and Canada was home to NATO’s and Russia’s latest war games two months ago. This previously inaccessible seaway is opening because of global warming, and large maritime nations see opportunity in the warming waters. But melting ice in the Arctic Circle and its implication for shipping and naval rivalry is just one concern among many as climate change inspires international action.
More than six years ago, experts in the field of climate change began warning that global warming would threaten areas of strategic importance across the world. Today policymakers foresee human migration or political instability due to drought, sea level rise, more severe storms and famine. Government leaders also imagine how a changing landscape would cause international disputes over sovereign control over lands and at sea, such as those new shipping lanes on the Northern Sea route.
For these reasons, it is surprising and vexing that climate change was not discussed at the Chicago NATO summit. Through talks, officials could have demonstrated NATO’s relevance in a new era and encouraged member nations to prepare for climate-related security threats in one of the most promising avenues for international cooperation on climate change.
Climate change and its relation to national security could be key in redefining NATO’s purpose, said Joshua Busby, who teaches public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and authored ‘Climate Change and National Security: An Agenda for Action,’ published in 2007 by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).
‘NATO is still an organization that needs a new long-term mission with the end of Cold War,’ he said. ‘Preparing for one of the most important threats of the 21st century surely qualifies as something they ought to incorporate into their plans.’
Jaime Shea, director of policy planning at NATO, agreed.
‘To remain a relevant organization in the 21st century, [NATO] has got to deal with the big issues that come along over the next 10 or 20 years,’ he said. Security threats caused by a warming world are a significant concern, he confirmed.
Universal effects of climate change
Climate change will impact every region of the world, according to a 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In Latin America, crop yields will decline with changes in precipitation and temperature and could leave up to 85 million people hungry in 2080. North America will see more frequent and intense droughts and depleted fresh water resources. An increased number of floods and droughts and rises in heat-related mortalities will plague Europe. In the Middle East, one of the world’s driest regions and an important strategic region for NATO, water resources will be further strained.
In the near future, NATO members will likely face pressure to supply military, economic and natural resources to desperate people in their own countries, as well as abroad. NATO Forces and partnerships may be needed as climate issues foster political instability and growth of terrorist groups. Governments could find themselves spread thin, as the United States did after Hurricane Katrina required troops be moved from Afghanistan to New Orleans. And, with NATO’s emphasis on smart defense, resources will be harder to come by. For these reasons, a discussion on climate change would be relevant and timely.
Careful dialogue, select action
The major obstacle to talks will be encouraging productive action without fostering the idea of militaries as the central response organizations to climate-related problems, Busby said. Militaries will only step in if conflict prevention and disaster preparedness investments by civilian agencies have not been made or fail, he added. A key component of NATO’s climate talks should therefore be how to encourage international civilian cooperation to mitigate and address the effects of global warming.
Another possible topic would be how to reduce military fuel needs. Fuel dependence has many negative effects for NATO members, Busby said. These range from a dangerous supply chain (provisions are often delivered by air or ground transportation to battlefields) to the production of huge amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. Breakthrough technology to address energy needs could drive technological advances that benefit civilians, as well.
The trickle down of technology could be preventative and help prevent future issues, such as the Arab Spring, Shea said. He pointed out mounting evidence that the events in North Africa and the Middle East resulted in part from climate change issues, such as rising food prices, failing harvests and prolonged drought.
‘If we don’t want that security dimension to become even bigger, whatever we can do in terms of modeling or helping countries to build capacity is an investment in the future,’ Shea said.
Overcoming past problems to tackle current issues
From the US refusal to ratify the Kyoto protocol to China’s desire to industrialize before changing its energy culture, climate discussions continually face struggles. However, NATO’s European partners are keen to find a way for countries to work together, especially during the economic crisis when many countries have cut defence budgets, said Fernando Andresen Guimaraes, head of the division of the United States and Canada at the European External Action Service (EEAS).
Global warming and national security may be the answer, said Guimaraes, who cited Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s recent speech on the topic as a promising sign.
‘It means there is an openness to pursue work which matches our agenda on climate change,’ Guimaraes said.
But others are not so sure. As the host country, the United States helped set the NATO agenda and thus missed an opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to working on the issue.
‘In this moment there is little optimism for a strong collaboration with the US on climate policy,’ said one European MEP who declined to be identified. ‘You don’t want to lose hope, but no one is expecting anything.’
Despite the many benefits to addressing climate change at the Chicago NATO summit, the agenda focused on what Busby called ‘more imminent challenges’ to national security, such the transition out of Afghanistan. Ultimately, however, multi-dimensional talks are required to address the multifaceted issue of climate change and national security, Busby said.